Alberta’s new curriculum chooses evidence over fads

Photo credit: Pixabay/Victorsheep

David W. Livingstone, Edmonton Journal, May 31, 2024

One would hope that teaching kids a coherent body of knowledge, including important historical facts and events, is a goal widely shared by educators and parents. Yet for too long, education elites have wedded themselves to theories that downplay the importance of acquiring knowledge: discovery-learning, experiential learning, inquiry-based learning, constructivist learning, and most recently 21st Century learning.

Such nice sounding names. The problem is: they don’t work.

Their advocates believe kids can acquire critical thinking without first mastering a body of knowledge. They present us with a choice. Either students memorize a lot of “useless” facts, or they can engage in “deeper learning” and develop independent minds. If given such a choice, which would you pick?

This is at the heart of the debate around the Alberta Government’s finally-launched new K-6 social studies curriculum.

But this is a false dilemma. It turns out you need both. The less students know, the less they can think critically.

Evidence about how the brain works supports this view. Psychology professor, John Sweller, and his colleagues concluded that, “Evidence from empirical studies over the past half-century consistently indicate that minimally guided instruction is less effective and less efficient than instructional approaches that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process.” Only with that foundation can students begin to reason well.

But this research too rarely gets to teachers. Former teacher turned researcher, Daisy Christodoulou, was shocked to find evidence undermined her teaching profession’s single-minded commitment to inquiry-based learning. “After I had been teaching for three years, I took a year out to do further study,” Christodoulou reports. “I was shocked to stumble across an entire field of educational and scientific research which completely disproved so many of the theories I had been taught when training and teaching. I was not just shocked; I was angry.” She was inspired to write Seven Myths of Education to lay out the evidence that the teacher-training colleges had shielded her from.

It was heartening, therefore, to see the Alberta government finally challenge the “discovery learning” trend in 2019. Predictably, Alberta’s first draft curriculum was immediately rejected by the teachers’ union and various education boards in the province. Their commitment to content-lite “discovery learning” is deep, despite the evidence that it doesn’t achieve the goals its proponents promise.

But rather than merely refine the first draft of knowledge-rich curriculum it commissioned, the government back-peddled considerably to appease its critics. However, the end result at least steps in the right direction.

The Alberta government needs to resist further backsliding. Discovery-learning doesn’t work, and it never will. I can also attest to this based on experience. British Columbia has doubled down on the discovery learning approach, yet I see scores of students each year coming into my university classes less knowledgeable and less able to think critically than ever. The promise that students can magically learn to think while having nothing in long-term memory to think about is the 21st century equivalent of selling snake-oil. The Alberta government needs to stop buying it.

Alberta is defying the long-dominant “pedagogical correctness” in curriculum development. Some powerful actors will make a lot of noise and seek to return to the past. But in doing so, they will fall into a

predictable cycle that also came to light in Professor Sweller’s studies: “In each decade since the mid-1950s, when empirical studies provided solid evidence that the then popular unguided approach did not work, a similar approach popped up under a different name with the cycle then repeating itself.”

“Each new set of advocates for unguided approaches seemed either unaware of or uninterested in previous evidence that unguided approaches had not been validated.”

The advocates of discovery learning seem either uninterested or unable to think critically about discovery learning, and they work like mad to prevent others from critiquing it, too.

Alberta can finally lead the way toward breaking this vicious cycle.

David W. Livingstone, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy and professor in Liberal Studies and Political Studies at Vancouver Island University.

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